Shorter days have always brought some individuals unpleasant moods, often described as “winter blues” or “cabin fever.”
Even Shakespeare refers to the “winter” of discontent. Psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists commonly refer to a pronounced negative response to shorter days as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Up to 25 percent of Americans suffer at least some negative response to shortened daylight. Symptoms of SAD may include:
- Trouble concentrating or focusing effectively
- Feeling depressed, fatigued, avoiding exercise
- An afternoon slump in energy, craving more carbohydrates and weight gain
- Sleeping more hours than normal
- Lost interest or enjoyment in activities normally a source of satisfaction or support
- Being more forgetful, less social
- For women prone to both SAD and premenstrual difficulties, symptoms more debilitating than those attributable to either problem alone.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is more prevalent the farther from the equator an individual lives. Some individuals experience their first episode of SAD when they move farther from the equator. Women and younger individuals present with SAD more often than men and older populations. Individuals in far Northern countries routinely use light therapy, as well as painting their walls colors in a warm yellow spectrum, to avoid SAD.
Laymen are aware of light therapy treatment as a potential source of relief for seasonal affective disorder. Consumer Reports and Newsweek have both covered the subject of light therapy treatments for SAD. The Veterans Administration is currently using light therapy to improve the lives of military personnel. Many clients who would never consider starting medication to remedy a mood disorder, no matter how much productivity and comfort they lose each year, welcome the idea of a fastacting treatment with little to no side effects.
Experts believe that shortened daylight may be the mechanism that causes changes in melatonin and serotonin levels in the brain, changes which in turn produce the unwelcome seasonal mood changes for those with SAD. Mammals need sufficient sunlight received by their eyes, on a regular schedule, to function optimally. (When blind patients were formerly enucleated for hygienic reasons, these unfortunate individuals would lose the ability to experience circadian rhythm properly.) When client depression appears 1) only in the fall or winter and 2) there is no past history of mania at any time of year, light therapy treatment should be recommended.
The shortest path to quick relief from SAD is an effective light therapy box used for 15 to 30 minutes in the morning.
Patients should be reminded to seek out reputable light therapy companies that adhere to safety standards, as the internet now offers potentially dangerous light therapy boxes at cut_rate prices. Some cheaper lights have effective therapeutic ranges of only two to three inches, an impractical distance to sit from a lamp. Lights should be UV filtered, so that negative wavelengths of light do not reach the eye and possibly damage eyesight.
Reputable companies measure the light’s output and recommend the optimal distance between a patient’s eyes and the light source. Any reputable dealer in light therapy devices will provide honest information not only on lumens and distance of therapy provided by each lamp, but will provide any service later needed for decades of relief from seasonal affective disorder.
Neal Owens, president of the SunBox Company, a manufacturer of UL approved light therapy devices, said his staff often receives calls from individuals saying, “My doctor said that I should call you about getting a SunBox” but the caller doesn’t know a lot about the different types. Getting a prescription for a light box may help a patient get insurance reimbursement for all or part of the cost of the light unit.
Patients who might be resistant to using medication for depression will often welcome light therapy. Since the light therapy often provides relief within a few days, this should be one of the first responses considered when a client presents with uncomplicated seasonally linked depression. The light therapy boxes can be used for decades, replacing the light bulbs every two to three years keeps the optimum light intensity.
Light can bring joy to patients as well as to clinicians who watch their conditions improve.